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Be a Sport: Own a Piece of Athletic History

Collecting sports memorabilia can be a game in and of itself.

Sports represent something akin to a religion for many people, so it's not surprising that courtside Knicks or Lakers seats are always filled with VIPs, and athletes such as David Beckham have become global heroes. Some folks want to take it further, and own pieces of sports history.

There are as many ways to collect as there are collectors: Photos of exciting moments, autographed items used in play (balls, bats and so on), mini helmets, team uniforms, pennants -- even sheet music celebrating the early-day celebrities of sport.

Perhaps some of the rarest and most coveted items are those from behind the scenes, i.e. letters and legal papers.

Pete Siegel, an owner of New York's Gotta Have It! Collectibles, paid $996,000 for what he considers the Holy Grail of memorabilia: The "Curse of the Bambino" contract, not even signed by Babe Ruth, but by Red Sox owner/Broadway producer Harry H. Frazee, who sold Ruth to the Yankees' Jacob Ruppert and T. L. Huston in 1921 for a final price of $125,000 (plus a $350,000 loan to help float his shows). That piece of paper changed the history of America's favorite pastime forever.

An addendum to Ruth's 1922 contract -- a no-drinking clause inserted by Ruppert, which didn't deter Ruth from hoisting a few -- sold for $65,000 in 2007.

A piece of the Babe himself? An autographed photo will set you back a mere $12,000 (let's face it, the chances of finding one in the next garage sale you attend are pretty slim), whereas Dallas' Heritage Auctions sold Ruth's 1933 All-Star jersey for $657,250 in 2006.

At least Ruth was as good as his game.

"I don't believe in collecting modern-day

players," Siegel states.

He has a point, what with recent steroid scandals and other variables. One day you've got an item signed by a gridiron great, and the next, it's rendered notorious at best by a double-murder accusation.

Siegel's house runs auctions and sells items direct, as well as owning a gallery within Mickey Mantle's restaurant in New York City.

For those who'd covet something from a current idol, there's not only

eBay

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(where Barry Bonds' #715 ball, which moved him past the Babe's record, was auctioned two years ago for over $220,000) but also outfits such as AllAuthentic.com, in Riverside, Calif., which at one recent point was selling a Derek Jeter-signed baseball for a reasonable $349, and a Wayne Gretzky jersey for a somewhat pricier $899.

The Steiner Sports Store on Long Island is another reputable outlet, running both auctions (a baseball signed by both the legendary Joe DiMaggio and Mantle was recently bid up to $2,500) and authenticated sales.

As Brandon Steiner points out on the store's Web site, "Autographed memorabilia by athletes like Hank Aaron, Joe Namath, Magic Johnson and Muhammad Ali is the hottest new solution for personal and client gifts, as well as sales incentives, employee recognition and charity fundraising auctions."

Obviously, collecting can be about a person, a team or a sport.

Siegel says that the Yankees are far and away the most popular of all, but scarcity as well as acclaim can drive prices sky-high.

According to an article in

Antiques Week

, National Negro League items are rare at any price: A collector who began in 1937 with a complete uniform for $25 commented that the jersey alone would be worth more than $10,000 today.

Many such items go through

Leland's Auction House

in Massachusetts, or

Hunt's

in Pennsylvania, which specializes in baseball and football. (If authenticity isn't so much an issue, replica team jackets and other apparel and merchandise is available through

Negro League Store

TheStreet Recommends

online; and the Negro League Baseball Players Association, dedicated to honoring the veterans of black baseball, offers logo lapel pins, bats and balls as membership incentives at

NLBPA

.)

Siegel offers the following advice for beginners: "I always suggest that you buy what you can afford -- and do the same thing with your second piece."

In the end, it all comes down to what (or who) you love. So if you buy with your heart as well as your wallet, you can't go too far wrong.

Gotta Have It! Collectibles

153 E. 57th Street, New York

1-212-750-7900; 1-800-950-1202

E-mail:

info@Gottahaveit.com

Also at Mickey Mantle's Restaurant

42 Central Park South, New York

(between 5th and 6th Avenues, on 59th Street )

212-688-1060

11:00 AM - 11:30 PM, Monday through Sunday

Heritage Auction Galleries

214-528-3500

ALLAunthentic.com

19069 Van Buren Blvd Ste 114-160

Riverside, Calif. 92508

951-750-1099

The Steiner Sports Store

Roosevelt Field Mall

630 Old Country Road

Garden City, N.Y. 11530

516-739-0580; 800-242-7139

E-mail:

HOH@steinersports.com